Several LIV golfers are playing in The Masters
As the Masters Tournament kicks off this week, all eyes are focused on the 18 LIV golfers who made the field. There was a lot of discussion about whether the sponsors of the four majors would follow the lead of the PGA Tour and ban LIV players from their tournaments, but by all accounts the four sponsors of the Major events, namely the Augusta National Golf Club (Masters), the USGA (U.S. Open), the R&A (British Open) and PGA of America (PGA Championship) decided to simply provide exemptions to players based on rules they created, rather than facing legal challenges. That means prior winners of the Masters and PGA Championship are allowed to play in those events for life, players who won The Open (British Championship), are exempt until they are 60 years of age, and U.S. Open winners get a 10 year exemption from their last win to play in that event. Furthermore, any winner of a major gets a 5-year exemption to all the major events.
The rules basically mean that Patrick Reed, Sergio Garcia, Bubba Watson and Charl Schwartzel have lifetime exemptions to the Masters; Brooks Koepka and Martin Kaymer are exempt for the PGA Championship; Louis Oosthuizen, Cameron Smith and Henrik Stenson are exempt from having to qualify for The Open until they are 60; and both Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson are exempt from most of the tournaments for the rest of their playing careers due to multiple major wins. As for the other LIV players, some have earned exemptions for a while due to wins or close finishes in recent tournaments, but those are set to expire in the next couple of years.
The main concern for LIV players is that LIV events do not provide Official World Golf Rankings (OWGR) points and they have been quickly sliding down the OWGR rankings, which is another means to get exemptions to play in the Majors. LIV players are banned from PGA Tour events and just recently an arbitration ruling has allowed the DP World Tour to suspend players who have signed on with LIV from playing in their events. Many LIV players including Patrick Reed, Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter have played in multiple DP World Tour events, in addition to LIV events, to gain OWGR points and keep their rankings up, but that will no longer be possible. LIV hoped to circumvent the missing OWGR points by partnering with the Middle East and North Africa (MENA Tour) last September, but management of OWGR immediately announced that they needed to look at the situation and suspended world ranking points for MENA Tour players until they could do a further review. After not receiving a firm commitment from OWGR that they will allow LIV players to earn points in those events, LIV has all but given up hope of earning points through that effort.
It’s all about the majors
Make no mistake that for the biggest players in the games, it’s all about the majors. It’s what brings prestige, and it is something they have all strive for as a career goal. So, the thought of never being able to play in another Masters or U.S. Open once their exemptions expire would be a devastating blow to many of the players, and they only way to assure they can play in the future is by winning a major while they are still exempt.
Of the players paid $100 million or more as a signing bonus by LIV, a few have been successful in that series including Brooks Koepka, Cameron Smith and Dustin Johnson, who have each recorded a win in LIV events (Johnson being the 2022 champion and Koepka getting his second win last week), but others have been duds. Phil Mickelson and Bryson Dechambeau have been downright awful and players like Bubba Watson and Matthew Wolff, who went to LIV with high fanfare, have disappointed. If there was a cut in LIV, Mickelson would only have made two in 11 events. Mickelson’s average finish is 28.5 with a best finish of 8th in last year’s event in Chicago. And Dechambeau’s results have actually been worse. Last week he tied for 44th in the 48 player field. And it isn’t lost on anyone that Mickelson was paid the record $200 million signing bonus to join LIV with Dechambeau the 2nd highest paid at $125 million. It is notable as well that Dechambeau’s skills were deteriorating before he left for LIV with some experts saying that in an effort to gain power, he simply lost his other skills, so he may have simply jumped at the chance to guarantee some cash while he could.
LIV golfers are required to play the full allotment of LIV events unless they are injured. If they fail to live up to that commitment, they face penalties upwards of four times their signing bonus. There are reports that some players are secretly very unhappy with the move, the most discussed being Brooks Koepka. Reports in at least two golf publications say that Koepka is having buyer’s remorse and indicated that he wished he didn’t move to LIV. Koepka denies it and says he’s happy where he is, but some golf writers say they know better. But leaving LIV would cost him $400 million (4x the signing bonus) which he would not be willing to pay. However, in 2025 he could technically end his contract as could a few others who by many accounts are upset with the direction of LIV golf, the lack of ancillary funds they thought they would be entitled to and the hatred towards them among many golf fans, including survivors of 9-11 who say that American LIV players sold out to 9-11 terrorists (the PIF investors) for the mighty buck. Plus because of low attendance, poor TV viewership and general lack of interest, they are losing support from fans.
Premiere golfers play the game for money, but also for prestige, and like it or not, Chris Kirk’s playoff win at the Honda Classic (a minor PGA event) meant far more to most golf fans than Charles Howell III’s win at the Mayakoba LIV event, which was deemed a premiere LIV event (had to look the winner up). Moreover, having seen the new increased stakes offered by the PGA Tour, many LIV players realize they could now make about the same amount of money on the PGA Tour that they are making on LIV. Most LIV players will also likely admit that the excuse that they joined LIV to play less golf to spend time with family was only a minor factor in their decision to move.
LIV has indicated it plans to introduce a relegation tournament starting at the end of this year which would require the lowest ranked players to compete in a tournament with the 4 lowest scores being relegated off the tour in 2024 and having to requalify the following year. This is to give other players a chance to join. It does, however, provide exemptions for winners of any of the majors since 2018, which would exempt most of the big names from having to qualify, although Bubba Watson would technically have to requalify if he remains where he is in the LIV money list since he hasn’t won a major since 2014, with Martin Kaymer in the same situation. Lee Westwood and Mark Leishman are hovering near the bottom of the money list so far in 2023 and since they have never won a major, they could technically have to requalify. This announcement has apparently created a lot of anger among the golfers.
Ban or Reinstate
The big question is whether PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan would lift the ban on LIV players if they came back on hands and knees The answer likely depends on who it is and also how they perform in the major tournaments over the next two years until the contracts expire. If it was Koepka, Cameron Smith or Dustin Johnson that asked for forgiveness there is belief Monahan would treat them like the Prodigal Son and welcome them back in, but it’s doubtful Monahan would extend the same courtesy to Mickelson or the likes of Bubba Watson or Dechambeau, who are no longer a real draw and have been very outspoken against the PGA Tour. One golf handicapper who has close ties to the tour told me that the that he is certain the only players the PGA Tour really would like to see return are Koepka, Johnson, Smith, Talor Gooch, Danny Lee, Abraham Ancer, Joaquin Niemann, Sebastian Munoz, Mito Pereira, Matthew Wolff and Harold Varner III. The rest would have to prove their worthiness to return, and Patrick Reed would probably never be welcome back as a result of ongoing cheating scandals that have left egg on the face of the PGA Tour.
So, the next two years of majors, starting with this week's Masters, are crucial for LIV golf. A win in the tournaments will provide exemptions to those events for at least 5 years and lifetime exemptions for two of them, including the Masters and PGA Championship, and it will provide fodder to convince the OWGR to award points to LIV golf tournaments if the majority of LIV golfers are competitive. It could also be important to convincing Jay Monahan and the DP World Tour Commissioner to have leniency if LIV players choose to not re-sign with LIV and want to return to those tours. At the time of writing after the first round, Koepka was tied for the lead, Bubba Watson and Louis Oosthuizen were set to miss the cut and Kevin Na withdrew from the round after 9 holes due to illness. It seems if a LIV player is going to win this year’s Masters, which will result in all LIV golfers celebrating on the 18th green according to Greg Norman, it will be either Koepka or possibly Cameron Smith who is tied for 17th.